India, a doubles nation!

Sania Mirza... pathbreaker in Indian women’s tennis.-AP

Indians are proving to be quite adept at doubles, but are not as good in the singles. Why? Kamesh Srinivasan arrives at an answer.

In the world of doubles, the Indians are second to none! At the Mecca of tennis that is Wimbledon, Sania Mirza, the world No.1 woman in doubles for the last many weeks, proved it yet again, in the empowering company of the Swiss Miss, Martina Hingis. At 42, Leander Paes has been truly exceptional.

It was Sania’s first women’s doubles Grand Slam title. She had won the year-end World Championship last year in the company of Cara Black of Zimbabwe. Of course, Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, who had also been world No.1 individually in men’s doubles in their prime, had won their maiden Wimbledon trophy many years ago. In 1999, to be precise.

The 41-year-old Mahesh who was responsible for triggering the doubles boom by winning the country’s first Grand Slam title, the mixed doubles crown in the French Open with Rika Hiraki of Japan in 1997, may have played his last Wimbledon. But Leander, Sania and Rohan Bopanna are there and set to go for glory in the Rio Olympics next year.

Before we take our doubles success for granted and resign ourselves to brood about the lack of singles stars, it will be interesting to quickly recall the singles performance of our doubles stars.

Leander won the Atlanta Olympics bronze medal in singles in 1996, beating a clutch of quality players including a top-10 member, Thomas Enqvist of Sweden. The everlasting picture of Leander with Andre Agassi and Sergi Bruguera on the Olympic podium should have inspired many, with a better game and physique than Leander, to emulate him. Sadly, it did not pan out that way.

Of course, Leander’s singles exploits in the Davis Cup arena against some of the very best in the game is part of folklore. We have not even mentioned that he beat one of the all-time greats, Pete Sampras, then world No. 2, in straight sets, in his backyard in the US in a Tour event. He also won a Tour event in Newport, apart from 11 Challenger singles titles, to reach a career-best rank of 73.

Lest we forget, Leander was World No.1 junior and had won the Wimbledon and US Open junior singles titles.

Even as he won his maiden National singles title on grass in 1994 in Chandigarh, Mahesh’s father C. G. K. Bhupathi emphasised that his son would be a top-10 doubles player in the world. Mahesh had given a hint of his doubles prowess by reaching the Wimbledon junior final with Nitin Kirtane (now spelt as Nitten Kirrtane). He was the first to become world No.1 in doubles in 1999, as Leander opted to play mostly singles.

Mahesh was no mean singles player himself, and had helped India win Davis Cup ties against Holland and Chile with his singles victories. He had also played some fine matches against Carlos Moya in Wimbledon and Jim Courier on the Tour in the US.

Sania Mirza’s singles game was much better known even though she had shot into the limelight by winning the junior Wimbledon girls’ doubles title with Alisa Kleybanova of Russia, and rose to be the world No. 1 junior in doubles. She was Asian junior champion in singles and had finished runner-up to Li Na of China in the Asian Championship. The wild card that came her way after Li Na made a direct entry at the Australian Open in 2005, changed Sania’s career, as she demonstrated a fearless game against Serena Williams in the third round.

Sania went on to become No. 27 in the world in singles, and the enduring memory of her outplaying US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, despite being in tears with a twisted ankle in a WTA event in Dubai, will remain as one of the brave episodes of India’s singles successes.

In the Asian Games in Doha in 2006, Sania outplayed Li Na for the loss of just four games, but lost the gold medal match to Zheng Jie in three sets.

A series of injuries that led to surgeries forced Sania to preserve herself for the doubles. It was a similar story with Mahesh, after he went through a shoulder surgery.

Leander, a supreme athlete, also chose not to dabble with singles play after giving his best at every level.

Rohan Bopanna was a fantastic singles player as he showed in the Davis Cup a few times against the likes of Martin Verkerk of Holland, Thomas Johannson of Sweden and in a victory over a young Kei Nishikori of Japan.

Of course, Leander's singles exploits in the Davis cup arena against some of the very best in the game is part of folklore.-AP

Bopanna reached a career-best rank of No. 3 in doubles, as against 213 in singles. He had a big game but bloomed late. It has to be noted that both Mahesh and Bopanna won a Challenger singles title, which was ample proof that they had the game to compete at that level on a regular basis.

Somdev Devvarman has been able to go the hard miles on his strong legs to a career-best rank of 62, the best in the last two decades that bettered Leander’s mark of 73. Somdev also won the Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medals, and the doubles gold as well in the Asian Games with Sanam Singh, to emphasise his all-round game.

Rather than look down upon doubles, it is high time we as a nation used it as the launching pad for singles success. A point to be noted for young stars like Sumit Nagal, Karman Kaur and Pranjala Yadlapalli.

If you have any doubt, look at the records of Roger Federer who regularly competed in the doubles on the Tour with Max Mirnyi, before Mahesh joined hands with the Belarussian. Lleyton Hewitt used to play a lot of doubles. So did Marcelo Rios and Patrick Rafter. John McEnroe was equally on top of the world in singles and doubles.

When the time came, Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka focussed on their doubles to get the gold for Switzerland in the Beijing Olympics.

Martina Hingis was an outstanding singles player, one of the greatest talents ever to have picked up a tennis racquet, before she opted to restrict herself to doubles, on her return to the professional circuit.

A good physical and technical foundation can definitely make the Indians excel on a singles court. They definitely have the game but do not reach the ball as regularly as they should, with time to spare, for the energetic execution of strokes.

Actually, we love to lord over much less real estate on a tennis court. We love to share the limelight! Less time and much less exertion, albeit with a different geometry, makes doubles quite alluring for the Indian players.

The rewards are much less in doubles and the best preserve themselves for the singles play. Even at the junior level, only 20 per cent of the doubles points count towards the combined world ranking.

It is time to change the impression that we are physically weak and mentally tough.

If there is more purposeful financial support, as players compete week after week around the world, our players would definitely focus on singles, foregoing the doubles success.

Otherwise, let us not complain, but just enjoy the fabulous doubles success. With the limited resources for career development, in a phenomenally expensive game like tennis, you just can’t have the best of both the worlds.